Diane Siskin: Old South...New South…Or A Little Of Both!

Sunday, April 16, 2017 - by Diane Siskin

Southern comfort and style is not what we went to Oxford, Mississippi to find.

Rather we wanted to explore the home of many literary legends that came from the town and became recognized world-wide. Those included William Faulkner and John Grisham.

We also were both surprised and impressed that when the list of this year’s James Beard Award recipients was announced and Oxford boasted of several restaurants and chefs on the list. Receiving a James Beard award is like getting an Oscar for acting.

So you can see why when a town with just 20,000 residents turns out to be a culinary capital of the U.S., it is big news and definitely a draw for many visitors.  

In years past Oxford, the home to the University of Mississippi, was well-known for that football family with the surname of Manning. We knew of brothers Eli and Peyton (he attended the University of Tennessee) and their dad, Archie, all great football players, but Oxford is also blessed to be the home of a third brother and son, Cooper. This Manning has spent his time and energy putting the town on the map as well.

We stayed at the Graduate Oxford Hotel; here is where “preppy pop” meets Southern comfort and style.

The hotel boasts a clever design throughout from the large lobby, filled with Ole Miss Students taking advantage of the use of free Wi Fi and comfortable furnishings, to the large front desk anchored on two sides by bookcases with real books. 

“Students are encouraged to study in the lobby of The Graduate,’’ said Mary Allyn Hedges, director of Visit Oxford. (Mrs. Hedges’ husband, Steven is a former Chattanoogan).

“They also get refreshments in the Cabin 82 located off the lobby. Lots of locals find their way up to the fourth floor to listen to music and enjoy drinks in The Coop restaurant and rooftop bar, which also offers a great view of the downtown.

“You will probably see Cooper Manning (an owner of the hotel) visiting with the guests,’’ added Mrs. Hedges. And we did see Cooper Manning welcoming and talking with guests.

“Drinks, coffee, conversation and innovative cuisine are the current hallmarks of Oxford. Whereever you turn downtown near the historic center square you are within steps of great dining.

The reason behind this food and its creative expansion of Oxford lies with many talented people who came to Ole Miss for either undergraduate or graduate work from all over the country and decided to stay and make their living in Oxford.

“They found this town and its beautiful university a magnet and they remained,’’ said Kinney Ferris, the assistant director of Visit Oxford and herself a graduate of Ole Miss. Her husband was already from Oxford. 

The main drivers of Oxford’s food revolution were John T. Edge, currently the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a columnist and food book author. His new book is The Potlikker Papers; A Food History of the Modern South. Mr. Edge was from Georgia and had attended the University of Georgia before he arrived in Oxford to attend Ole Miss.

John Currence is a chef and owner of the City Grocery Restaurant Group, which includes five restaurants. His restaurants were not overnight successes, but rather consistently offering nice ambiences, super friendly service, true Southern hospitality, and Southern cooking with innovative “foodie twists” The original restaurant in the group, City Grocery, has been open for 25 years.

They also have intriguing names:
Big Bad Breakfast
City Grocery
Lamar Lounge now renamed Fat Eddie’s
Cynthia Gerlach, formerly of Portland, Oregon, is the owner of the Bottle Tree Bakery. She too arrived in Oxford to attend the university. She missed the great coffee scene of Portland, so when she graduated she decided to open a coffee house and bakery in Oxford in 1995. It offers pastries and baked goods, soups, sandwiches and salads.

Its European style breads and pastries take two days of work. “We are committed to quality with fresh baked goodness,” said Ms. Gerlach. The crowd at breakfast seemed to echo her statement.

Emily Blount is the proprietor of Saint Leo, a very modern pizza and Italian restaurant that has been named as one of the best new restaurants of the year by the James Beard Foundation.

This Italian wood-fire grill accepts no reservations but people are willing to wait for seats in this relatively small restaurant. On the rainy night we visited the line literally extended out the door.

Pizza, while excellent, is not the only item on the menu. There are dinner entrees and pasta, vegetables, grains and legumes. But the house specials are burrata and grilled bread, beef and pork meatballs, crispy house-made pork belly and wild gulf scrimp in Sicilian red pesto.

Our evening was made extra enjoyable discussing food and restaurant design with Taariq David the restaurant’s manager. Mr. David has a wonderful sense of humor as well as extensive knowledge of food and what appeals to his customers.
On another evening we also had dinner and conversation with Chef Vishwesh Bhatt at a restaurant oddly named the Snackbar. It is another of John Currence’s eateries and Chef Bhatt just happens to be a James Beard nominee in the category ”Best Chef South.” 

Chef Bhatt, like the others restaurant owners and chefs already mentioned, came to Oxford to study and decided to stay and become part of the city’s incredible food scene.

Snackbar, also packed on a weekday night, feels more akin to an English Hunt Club than a fast food eatery that the its name implies. The restaurant has a cozy bar, but also long communal tables and booths. Our dinner did start with raw oysters and cocktails. It went on to include charcuterie choices, small plates, not so small plates (Lobster Mac and Cheese, Fried Catfish Bibimbap, Roast Lamb), sides and desserts, just no burgers and fries!  

There are so many others who have contributed to making Oxford a great dining destination. 

The old and literary aspect of the city still remains and it is just as enticing as ever. We visited Rowan Oak, the historic home of Nobel Prize-winning author, William Faulkner on a very cool, but crisp morning.

Mr. Faulkner lived at Rowan Oak, named for the magnificent trees which surround it, from 1930 to his death in 1962.

Walking around the beautiful, tranquil grounds it was easy to see why Faulkner, acclaimed as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, was happy to work here in a home that dated back to 1842. 

In this house Faulkner wrote Light in August, Absalom, Absalom! The Hamlet, Intruder in the Dust and The Reivers, to mention just a few of his books. He wrote others at different homes in Oxford in which he lived prior to moving to Rowan Oak.

I loved walking the peaceful and beautiful grounds which still sport original out buildings. I noticed that some locals bring their dogs to walk the woods (Bailey‘s Woods). 

Rowan Oak is now surrounded by attractive neighborhoods and is just minutes from downtown, but once you enter the property you feel like you are far out in the country. Faulkner named the house Rowan Oak after the Celtic legend of the rowan tree believed to harbor magic powers of safety and protection.

The tools of his trade according to Faulkner were paper, tobacco, food and a little whiskey. If he was living and writing today in Oxford, he wouldn’t have needed paper, tobacco or maybe even the whiskey, but he would be amazed at the variety of food which could be had in the town.

As for John Grisham, a modern day author who is well-known and read, he no longer lives full time in Oxford (he donated his house to the University of Mississippi) but his presence and work is well-documented at the famous Square Books store.

There are actually three Square Book stores now including a children’s book store on the downtown square.

In 1864 Generals Grant and Sherman met in Oxford and many homes and structures in the square were burned to the ground. Yet, today the South has seemingly risen in Oxford.

This historic town which patterned itself after Oxford England in both name and deed to get the University of Mississippi located there has now remade itself into a modern city offering glimpses of history mixed with creative cuisine.

For Your Information:

The Double Decker Arts Festival, Oxford’s 22nd annual, features more than 200 art and food vendors and a mix of performances by local and touring musicians on April 28 and 29, doubledeckerfestival.com

The Graduate Oxford. 400 N Lamar Blvd.; (662) 234-3031. The guest and public rooms are cleverly decorated to resemble university décor with accents such as wardrobes, designed to look like dorm lockers, plaid décor and “Do not disturb” signs in shape of college pennants.

Rowan Oak, 916 Old Taylor Road. Don’t miss talking with curator Bill Griffith, if he is onsite. William Faulkner is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford. A statue of him resides in the Courthouse Square.

Square Books, 160 Courthouse Square. Plan to spend some time here; there is so much to see on two floors.

Visit Oxford, 1013 Jackson Avenue East. (Next door to Saint Leo Restaurant). Phone 662 232-2477. Visitoxfordms.com

Saint Leo, 1101 Jackson Avenue East. (662) 380-5141.

Snackbar, 781 N. Lamar Blvd. (662) 236-6363.

Bottle Tree Bakery, 923 Van Buren Avenue. (662) 236-5000.

Ajax Diner, 118 Courthouse Square.  Home to Eli Manning’s favorite sandwich, “The Big Easy.” Down home cooking at very reasonable prices. Popular lunch spot.

By Diane Siskin

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